In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Electronic Art’s CEO Andrew Wilson proposed that, moving forward, games such as FIFA and Madden would do away with annual releases. Instead, Wilson suggests these games will function within a subscription system, in which players can consistently pay to update their games with downloadable packs and updates.
This seems the natural endgame for the ‘Games As A Service’ monetisation model that has seemingly hit the mainstream in 2017 (‘The Year of the Lootbox’). Instead of a standalone distribution model of individual releases, games will become a live service that look to keep players engaged over a longer period of time. In the future then, games will not focus on huge opening day sales in order to recover revenue on their development costs. Rather, the games you already have will be looking to keep you engaged as long as possible in order to extract your money from you with endless content and dynamic gameplay mechanics.
That being said, it can be argued that videogames are potentially endless anyway. Isn’t it just a matter of playing (and replaying) until we, the players, become too bored to play anymore? Don’t games only end when we choose to end them?
If so, could this means that the ‘games as a service’ monetisation model pushed by AAA publishers isn’t just an inevitability for commercial videogames, but also a natural realisation of videogames themselves? And if this is the case, could this give us an indication as to how videogames will develop (and function) in the future?
In his definition of ‘Digimodernism’, philosopher Alan Kirby declares that all contemporary cultural products are characterised by their endlessness. In the current cultural paradigm, nothing ever just ‘ends’ anymore, but consistently points towards future developments. One prominent example of this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe; whilst the stories in each film are standalone, they always make sure to include a post-credit sequence to set up the expanding universe of stories. It’s increasingly rare to have a product, whether that’s a TV show, movie, or videogame to be truly standalone, complete in its singular nature.
If this is the case, and what Kirby says is true, then what can that tell us about the future of our favourite cultural products, videogames? With 2017 being the year of the Lootbox and ‘Games as a Service’ becoming the model par excellence for AAA releases, will videogames ever be able return to an economic model of supposed standalone products? In Kirby’s terms, the answer is definitively a ‘no’.
Instead of being treated as individual products, videogame publishers are beginning to describe their games as ‘services’; a text that is continually updated and developed upon. From a developer’s perspective, a game as a service is one that is never truly finished, or complete, and there should always be more engaging content, or dynamics in how the player can interact with the game.
Destiny 2 for example, has a continually repeating cycle of different Nightfall challenges, and different compositions of its Leviathan Raid. The story mode might be done after only 8 hours of gameplay, but for many, the ‘real game’ are those stories and experiences you develop afterwards. In this sense, there will always be some game to return to. This is classed as ‘dynamic’ content – that which is continually changing in order to engage the player.
However, echoing Kirby’s comments above, hasn’t this always been a part of videogames and contemporary cultural products? Dynamic content has been observed in videogame medium since its inception. The original videogames, Spacewar! and Pong and the like were always constantly changing experiences. Videogames are inherently built to be played in multiple ways, whether through competition, difficulty or through inherent repetition. Importantly, that doesn’t stop players becoming bored of them.
The difference in 2017, is that much of the dynamic, engaging content is being locked behind a paywall. Previously, buying a PlayStation 2 game gave the illusion of buying a complete product, due to its inability to be updated and added to outside of traditional means. However, with the increased ease of digital distribution, there need never be limited content again.
Ubisoft recently released their earning report over the previous year, and it was telling that recurring player investment created more revenue than that of initial games distribution. Engaged players, ones that spend a substantial amount of time with a game, are likely to spend more money than new customers. For publishers and their shareholders then, the priority is not enticing new customers to buy their products, but to monetise those that are already playing. This is most obvious in the free-to-play economy of videogames, which rely on this model in its entirety.
Looking forward then, in order for videogames to continue to increase their profit margins, publishers will continue to prioritise continued engagement with games. Games will become time-sinks, with increasing incentive to keep consumers playing as long as possible. Indeed, this has already been seen in the success of larger games such as Destiny 2, Overwatch and many MMO’s. It’s also been observed in the indie market; games such as Minecraft, ARK: Survival Evolved and even PUBG are successful due to their constantly evolving and developing nature.
The future of videogames may be related to increased player engagement over a long period of time, but does that mean we only play a single videogame for ever and ever? Not necessarily...
One of the documented psychological values in playing videogames, is its novelty. Videogames give us plenty of positive emotional experiences, and one of the most treasured of those is the feeling of learning. Each new game brings with it new mechanics and ways of playing that are important to learn. This process of learning and discovering has commonly been attributed as one of the reasons that we play videogames.
In some instances, this process is explicitly represented by an upgrade system in-game; the periodic gating of various mechanics that must be unlocked or earned through playing the game. A recent example of this is in the new Assassins Creed: Origins. Whereas previous titles in the series were comfortably designed as action-adventure games, Origins brings with it many RPG-like elements, such as levelling up and upgrading your gear. There are now literal numbers that appear whenever you attack an enemy, in order to give the player a concrete example of how their character has developing as a killing machine.
That being said, outside of these explicit progression systems, there are many aspects of game play that must be learnt by the player that the game takes for granted: How far can my character jump? How quickly can I line up this headshot? The process of gaining a sense of mastery over these mechanics are a strong part of why players continually engage with games, outside of the RPG systems outlined in the above paragraph. It’s why those first few hours with a game can sometimes offer the best experience.
As games look to value increased engagement by players then, how will developers look to tackle the players desire for totally new experiences? Currently, most dynamic and novel content in videogames is already limited by the parameters of the game itself. The Blood and Wine Expansion of The Witcher 3 is fantastic, but it’s still fundamentally The Witcher 3, for example.
Will developers look to take the ‘difficult to master’ route seen in competitive videogames such as Overwatch? Or will it more explicitly demonstrate this progression through in game systems, such as the RPG mechanics seen in Destiny 2 and Assassins Creed: Origins? Either way, the subscription model may offer a dedicated source of income for games developers, however it may reach a point in which the average gamer become fatigued with the monotonous nature of certain games.
What do you think? What keeps you engaged with videogames? Would you prefer to play a single videogame over a longer period, or multiple different videogames? Let’s chat.
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